Or at least that’s the easy and obvious perception as Mississippi State prepares to resume play after week-off to come-down from their splendid success at LSU. Coach Dan Mullen is correct of course. We never really know if an open date helps or hurts until after-the-fact. Sometimes many weeks after. Sorta like what we wrote this past week in the series in ‘biggest’ Bulldog victories over the years; they’re only truly big if they set a stage for greater stuff ahead.
What isn’t an argument today is Mullen and staff used the break to evaluate four games’ worth of wins, against a group of victims widely-varying in styles and skills. Again, more luck there since while Mullen said he prefers a larger sample size those first four opponents did present enough different matchups and situations for State to test just about the entire 2014 repertoire.
Two weekends from today? Yeah. By the time these Bulldogs hit mid-season and their other open date everybody should have a clearer idea what this season has in store. Not for nothing did Mullen inject the cautionary note at Tiger Stadium that while beating the then-#8 team in the land was great, the next two opponents were both ranked higher. They still are.
Speaking of polls, they’re fun and all to read right now and certainly the Bulldogs enjoy seeing State’s name in the top-15 or even mentioned in connection with playoff potential. Hopefully they take it as just that, fun more than forecast. Because Texas A&M and Auburn aren’t going to arrive on campus impressed by a ranking.
By the Bulldogs? Safe to say they are, because this is taking the shape of an impressive squad that (even better) is not a finished product. Should Mississippi State fix a few September flaws, if that’s what they really are because only coaches really know; and some of the early-season strengths continue to get, well, even stronger, these Dogs can make some serious noise the next two months.
To contend for title to the most insanely-stout Division in college sports, now, that hangs on the next two weeks.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s no way State can drop this homestand and stay in contention. But a split is unlikely to eliminate them either. Maybe, maybe I can envision one team getting through the West unscathed as things stand today but I wouldn’t wager a shiny shekel on it. Then again I haven’t seen enough of our Division peers as intended due to our own game time conflicts. Plus, yesterday an unexpected obligation took me elsewhere. All I care to explain publically is there’ll be another void in my own MSU-sports world from now on. September was fine on the field but tough emotionally off it.
What seems safe to say is this would be a great year to be merely good in the East, wouldn’t it? In fact the only certainty of SEC September is Vanderbilt owns the cellar again. Kentucky is as most figured greatly improved but didn’t exactly dominate the ‘Dores yesterday…and once again an open date will favor the Dogs as they can recover from whatever happens in the homestand in time for that increasingly-crucial road trip. It’s not even October and already the hot seat suggestions are sizzling, and yes Dog fans we might want to steel ourselves for inevitable name-dropping if Florida doesn’t right their flatboat quickly. Ditto by the way for Michigan which seems near-certain now to pull the trigger. Just saying, so the sensitive don’t panic over speculations from beyond the borders. It’s a compliment, people.
Meanwhile here on the brutal side of the league, I agree with others that LSU will figure themselves out eventually as there’s just so much raw talent there…making State’s victory that much more impressive in weeks to come. We’ll find out this week if Alabama really has figured out their quarterbacking, or if Ole Miss’ more aggressive defense can stop a ground game. Or if they have one of their own for that matter. Arkansas does and when they can connect on a few passes they’re really interesting for the long-haul, but I don’t think yesterday was a good test of that.
Which is another way of predicting Mississippi State is going to score this Saturday. No revelation there. Piling up points on UAB and South Alabama was encouraging, but scoring repeatedly at LSU was proof the Bulldog offense is back. Or should we say back to what is Mullen’s balanced basics? Because the ’13 team could score too but depended on passing and protection. Whereas through one month of play the Dak (Prescott) Attack has netted 1,083 rushing yards and 1,067 passing yards. Sure much of the stats came on scorching three lesser foes, but a 570-yard output against LSU with 302 of that on the ground shows how State still prefers playing the game. With good reason.
Now, as to all the angst over Dillon Day’s absence. The suspension question has to be downplayed this week if only to avoid unnecessary distraction for the team…yeah, like we’ll let it go so easily. There is nothing good about losing the senior center against anyone, but if it had to happen in mid-season dare I suggest this is the best of the poor choices? What I did get to watch yesterday upon return to town was how the Aggies altered their defensive interior for more speed against Arkansas’ blocking. No one knows if they’ll play the same way against a different Dog snapper this week but that card at least has been shown for study.
Whoever is hiking, the scoreboard lights will be burning early and often. Maybe not 92 points worth as last year in College Station, but then why not? The true challenge is limiting the Aggies this time to, say, less than 50. I can’t say Arkansas really did since A&M’s passing game was not in first-half synch at all with some really surprising drops and, at least to this amateur eye, the throwing motion was kinda weird under pressure. You have to believe the Bulldog defensive front can create that sort of pressure without involving linebackers too often. Right?
Well yeah, if downfield coverage has recovered from that fourth-quarter scorching at Tiger Stadium. Thing is, we saw these cornerbacks cover well much of last season without nearly as much up-front help as is available this season. The UAB game, I wrote off to a pretty vanilla coverage approach. LSU was more worrisome because they knew the ball was gonna get tossed long and plays were still made. But, and this is why we oughtn’t write the gang off yet, the ability to cover is there. We’ve seen it before so nobody is asking more than what is available. We think. Check this space next Sunday for updates.
There’s ever-so-much-more to say about this matchup and it’ll get said through the week. The point for today is the Bulldogs should be safely back to earth thanks to the break, and reasonably healthy—i.e. on the offensive line--for game prep. More than this, they carry increased and legitimate confidence into season-setting contests with A&M and an Auburn team that we will absolutely need Day for. That confidence will be needed on both sides of the ball since the Ags will score points, thus the offense needs to know it can answer and the defense that it can and even should make enough stops. Even a last-gasp sort of stop as last Saturday night, should it come down to it.
So, here come the two weeks for Mississippi State to present its best case that the Dogs really are contenders. Much like the open date, the timing feels right.